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Let me tell you a story:
Fifteen years ago, I was in line at a grocery store, behind two Hispanic men checking out. The clerk—a high school girl—got frustrated because her customers had trouble with the English language. That she was annoyed was obvious.
When those two Hispanic men walked away, she muttered something to us—the white folks back in line—words spoken loud enough for us to hear. “Learn the language,” she growled. And then she said something like this: “When you come here to our country, learn the language or go home!”
I would have liked to tell her that 180 years ago, there were Native Americans all around here who gave Iowa its name but now live in Kansas and Oklahoma because we thought their land was ours for the taking.
We have a history of prejudice.
I would have liked to tell her that on Armistice Day, 1918, an angry mob made Rev. John Reichardt stand on a coffin and kiss the flag, while a band from a nearby town played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On the coffin was written “The Kaiser—now ruler of Hell.” When the show was over, Rev. Reichardt was ordered out of town. His crime was using the German language in German-speaking Zion Evangelical Reformed Church of Lowden, Iowa. Because he spoke German, he was a criminal.
Iowans have a history of prejudice, even an old state law, “the Babel Proclamation,” once in place, now nullified. We once made prejudice an institution of government.
I would have liked to tell that grocery store clerk that, just about the same time as the Babel Proclamation, real Iowa-born terrorists planted a bomb beneath a Reformed Church parsonage, and actually burned down the New Sharon Reformed Church and the Peoria Christian School. Those bombers were too hate-filled and pig-headed to know the difference between Dutch and Deutsch.
I would have liked to tell that young lady that we all have a history of prejudice.
I would have liked to say that almost assuredly, her grandparents or great-grandparents needed help shopping in LeMars or Rock Rapids, wherever they’d go, because they didn’t know the English language. And that as late as the 1950’s, men and women on the streets of Orange City or Sioux Center still used Dutch, a half century or more after the immigration from the Netherlands stopped for the First World War.
I would have liked to tell her all of that, but I didn’t. However, I did write up that story and sent it to the Sioux Center News because I wanted to remind all of us that we certainly do have a history of prejudice.
But my grocery store story doesn’t end there. There is one more chapter.
The morning after letter to the editor showed up, the manager of one of the town’s stores called me. It was early, eight in the morning. She identified herself, someone I knew from church. Then she said, “Jim, I need to know who that check-out was. I have to know.”
I told her the clerk wasn’t an employee of her store. She wasn’t.
Still, to me that early morning response was a blessing.
I couldn’t help remember that story this week because bigotry needs to be confronted and condemned, whether the perp is a high school grocery clerk or the President of the United States.
We have a history of prejudice, a history we’ve created and suffered; but like that grocery store manager, we don’t have to tolerate it. We can fight it. We can call it ugly, call it wrong, and call it sin.
Because it is.